Pantomime traditions: What you need to look out for
Pantomimes are a popular form of theatre performed across the United Kingdom at Christmas time. From the biggest theatres in the country to smaller performance spaces, actors will get into the festive spirit and star in this style of Christmas show which appeals to all ages. If you’ve never been to see a pantomime before or you’re curious to learn more about what makes this British tradition tick, read our guide for pantomime traditions you can look out for.
How did the style of pantomime theatre originate?
First performed to break up operas, pantomimes took to the British stage from 1723 with Harlequin Doctor Faustus, recognised as the first pantomime. Ever since, British audiences have loved the comedic value, with pantomimes full of light-hearted joking and frivolity that younger and older audiences will loved.
Today, pantomimes across the country are led by a star-studded lineup, with celebrities making fun of themselves on stage in a show where jokes are often written around them.
What stories are told through pantomime?
Pantomimes are usually children’s stories, which have been adapted for comedic effect to be presented for children and adults. From stories set in the heart of London to magical lands far far away, here are some of the well-known pantomimes that may be at a theatre near you.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The London Palladium was home to Goldilocks and the Three Bears this Christmas. Set in a circus, Dame Betty Barnum and her daughter Goldilocks’ circus is under threat from an evil rival circus owner and, with the help of their madcap circus friends, they’re battling to rescue their Big Top from ruin. All seems lost, until three brilliant bears join the gang…
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White is a young woman who is deemed the fairest in the land, much to the anger of her evil stepmother, the Wicked Queen. Setting out to murder Snow White, the queen dresses as an old woman to give Snow White a poisoned apple. Taking a bite in the apple causes Snow White to become weak, especially when she wants to fall in love with a prince. Will Snow White be able to see her wishes come true?
Aladdin: The eponymous street urchin finds himself lucky when he uncovers a genie stuck inside a lamp, with Aladdin later granted three wishes. Wanting Princess Jasmine to fall in love with him, the story follows the pair as they grow closer to each other in a show combining a middle eastern Disney classic with British pantomime traditions.
Jack and the Beanstalk: Selling his cow for magic beans, Jack plants his new beans in the ground. When he wakes up the next morning, Jack is greeted with a giant beanstalk stretching into the clouds. As he climbs up the beanstalk, he is met by an evil giant who wants to eat him! Through his cunning, Jack saves himself and receives his own treats.
Dick Whittington: Travelling to London to seek his fortune, Dick Whittington heads off into the world alone with his trusty cat as a sidekick. Growing from nothing, the story of Dick Whittington ends with him becoming the Mayor of London.
Cinderella: As a poor, enslaved woman, Cinderella is always left behind. When her stepmother and stepsisters are invited to the royal ball, it seems she’ll be the only one without an invite. But, with a touch of magic from a fairy godmother, Cinderella strides into the ball and catches the eye of Prince Charming. Losing a shoe, the prince sets off to find the shoe’s owner, but will Cinderella be allowed to fit into the heel again?
Peter Pan: The story of the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan encourages the Darling children to fly away with him to the second star on the right. Ending up in Neverland, they fight off the dastardly pirate Captain Hook, as the children team up with the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and the tiny fairy Tinker Bell in a story which shows you never have to lose your childish touch.
Are there phrases typically said in pantomime?
While productions may be different each year, there are a few phrases said that have now stuck as pantomime traditions.
“He’s behind you!” Normally said when a baddie is sneaking onto the stage, the audience shouts “He’s behind you!” to warn the hero that the villain is close to them. However, the hero will turn the wrong way to find the villain, meaning that the chase continues. Getting closer to each other, the audience will continue to shout “he’s behind you” until the hero and villain bump into each other, causing them to run away from one another.
“Oh no, it isn’t!” A time where the characters and audience interact with one another, this is often said at the start of an argument, where the character will exclaim something to which the audience may say “Oh no it isn’t” or something along these lines. This argument can carry on until it is broken by someone else entering the scene.
“Aaah” When a character seems to be in a spot of bother, the audience will often sigh a large“aaah” to show that they are on their side. This can be built upon, leading the audience to a giant exasperation to really show that they care.
Where does the villain stand?
Whether a pantomime is amateur or professional, the villain will always enter from the left to stand stage left and the good character will enter from the right to stand stage right. It is said that the pantomime fairy should use her right hand to hold her wand, as they will be able to protect their heart from the demon. In older theatres, the stage trap was normally located on the left side of the stage, where the demon would now stand. The left has often been seen as the ‘mean’ side of theatre.
To find out more about words and phrases you may see and hear in the theatre, we’ve put a list together of some common things you could hear others talking about.
Roles of the opposite sex
It has become custom for a pantomime to feature a woman playing the “principal boy” and a man to play the “pantomime dame”. With a larger-than-life sense of humour and many outlandish costumes, dames are extroverts in the show who play tricks on others in the show, with jokes targeting children and adults alike.
Audience and cast singing together
In pantomimes, there is often a camaraderie between the audience and the performers developed upon during the show. Many productions will feature a “songsheet” for the penultimate scene, where children in the auditorium are often invited to join the sidekick in a good sing song. Some song sheet songs include “I Am the Music Man” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. These songs are silly, full of fun and are sure to have parents and children laughing together at the madness ensuing on stage.
Ghost scenes in pantomime
Even if a story doesn’t seem like it will feature a ghost, a pantomime can always make room for a visiting spooky character. Ghost stories usually feature when all the leads are together and they are searching for someone. One by one, characters seem to be taken by the ghost leaving one person by themselves, unaware of the suspicious activity which has just taken place.
Ghost scenes often have little to do with what’s happened before or what will occur after the scene, they’re added as a bit of fun to break up the pantomime.
Enjoy a sweet treat
Typically, the Dame will throw sweets into the audience for children to catch, but that doesn’t need to stop adults getting their pesky mitts on the sugar!
The final lines of the show
It has become one of the biggest pantomime traditions for the last lines of the show to be rhyming couplets, summing up the entire story and the lives of each character in a few sentences. These lines are never said in rehearsals, as it is considered bad luck to utter them before the curtain opens for the first performance. The first time these lines are heard by the cast is at the end of the first performance.